Situated on the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road, linking East and West, Afghanistan has played a vital role in food and agricultural trade dating back to ancient times. Merchants traveling along the ancient Silk Road introduced Chinese tea and Indian spices to Afghan cuisine.
Afghan cuisine is diverse with an intriguing blend of delicate flavours and dishes of regional specialities. Neighbouring countries in central Asia, the Middle East, India and China, continue to influence traditional Afghan cuisine, which is steeped in ritual and cultural tradition. Iranian and Indian food is the most dominating influence, although Afghan cuisine is milder than their spicy Indian counterparts. Although influenced by various Asian countries, Afghan food has a style of its own with a tasteful fusion of spices, including saffron, coriander, cinnamon cardamom and black pepper.
The following recipe is an excerpt from The Honey Thief written by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman. The novel is a collection of short stories derived from the long oral traditions of storytelling, exploring the rich culture of Afghanistan.
In the final chapter, Thoughts on Growing and Eating, Mazari and Hillman share the history of tradition Afghan cuisine and provide some essential cooking tips for various celebratory dishes; advice on planning and buying quality seasonal produce for cooking; valuable tips on cooking rice to perfection, a staple in the Afghan diet.
The advice follows the basic principles of the organic wholefoods approach, using fresh local vegetables, fresh herbs and blends of spices, healthy legumes and fresh succulent meat.
Recipe from The Honey Thief page 266
Sabzi Gosht (Lamb with Spinach)
Ok, lamb with spinach. This is what you will need:
1 ½ kilos Lamb cut from the leg.
Take the trouble to find good lamb. With this dish, your jaw and teeth get a holiday.
The lamb has to melt in your mouth and just the pressure of your palate will bring out all the flavour that the meat has absorbed from the spices and herbs. So, good lamb, no excuses, cut from the leg, one-and-a-half kilos.
½ Kilo Brown Onions
4 Garlic cloves
1 Cup Beef Stock – Best if you make it yourself and have it ready.
Pinch of Turmeric
Pinch of cardamom
Pinch of Cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Sesame oil or olive oil.
A good bunch of fresh spinach.
Yogurt. This must be proper yoghurt, not that foolish yoghurt that is sometimes sold with bananas in it and strawberries and sugar.
Grated lemon peel. Not so much, maybe what will fill a teaspoon.
5 big tomatoes, very red.
Roasted pine nuts. Enough to fill an eggcup.
Divide the lamb into pieces, each about the size of a small potato. You must quickly sear the lamb in a cast –iron casserole dish, with a small amout of sesame iol or olive oil. By ‘a small amount’ I do not mean next to nothing. We want some of the flavours of the oil to pass into the dish. Next ass the brown onions, chopped into small pieces. Saute the onions with the lamb for two, maybe three, minutes; you judge. Then put the crushed cloves of garlic into the pan and sauté the garlic for a shorter time, say a minute.
Now add all the spices, one spice at a time, and sauté for another two minutes. But concentrate: if the onions blacken, if the garlic burns you will have to make the difficult decision: throw everything away or eat a ruined dish. In Afghanistan we can’t afford to throw food away so we make sure we don’t burn the onions and the garlic.
Now add the tomatoes, chopped into chunks and the beef stock. Okay, now the casserole dish goes into the oven. We don’t want the lamb to cook to quickly, so keep the temperature down to maybe two hundred degrees centigrade. Cook the lamb for one-and-a-half-hours, or even longer, but not too much longer or you will kill the natural taste of the lamb and be left with nothing but the taste of the spices and the garlic.
After cooking in the oven, the lamb will be falling to pieces. Let the casserole cool for a few minutes before you add the spinach. You will have washed the spinach and drained it by this time and you will have torn it up with your fingers. The heat of the casserole dish will cook the spinach as you add it. Blend the spinach in, add the lemon rind and the yoghurt and keep stirring. Now some salt, not so much. Sprinkle the roasted pine nuts on the casserole, then put the lid back on and let the dish cool for fifteen minutes before you serve it with Basmati prepared in the Afghan manner.
“In Afghanistan, especially for the Hazara, eating is what keeps you alive, not something you write poems about. And so the dishes we prepare are versions of those first prepared to the east, in Isfahan and Shiraz, in Mashad, Tabriz, Kerman, Yazd, Rafsanjan. More than any other people in Afghanistan, the Hazara have kept what they eat very simple.” page 250 The Honey Thief
Despite wintery conditions the Masawat Development Fund’s ambulance is in full operation in the Charkent region, northern Afghanistan.
Equipped with snow chains for part of the mountainous journey, the four wheel drive vehicle continues to save lives, transporting patients to hospital located in Mazar-e-Sharif.
Masawat Development Fund president, Najaf Mazari says, “Snowy conditions make it difficult for our driver, but thankfully the four wheel drive can continue to operate in the snow and ice.”
In spring many roads are inaccessible to a standard vehicle due to melting ice. Equally in winter, the snow makes it difficult for cars to access the remote region. Residents are often cut off at these times, with some choosing to relocate to Mazar-e-Sharif. For residents without the resources to relocate, life can be extremely difficult, especially when they are sick, injured or due to give birth. Residents who remain in the region have the option of giving birth at home without medical assistance or travel up to 14 hours on the back of a donkey in the freezing snow.
The Masawat Development Fund now offers another option for residents, a free transportation service to seek medical attention in hospital.
The MDF ambulance continues to be one of the only free ambulance services to operate in the region.
Najaf says the ambulance mainly transports pregnant women, but has been called to transport a variety of sick and injured patients from young children to the elderly.
The ambulance driver, Noor Agha assisted in a road traffic accident, where four people were seriously injured. He has also transported a patient under police guard.
Najaf said Noor Agha has had close calls with patients nearly giving birth in the ambulance. One pregnant patient was reported to haemorrhage, but thankfully reached the hospital in time to save her life and her baby’s life. On another journey, the ambulance became stuck on ice dislodging the bumper bar. The driver managed to manoeuvre the damaged vehicle off the ice in time to reach hospital.
Najaf is energised by the emergency operation MDF is providing for his hometown. “I like to think for every mother we save we save a baby’s life also”.
Najaf believes the success of the MDF is the strong partnerships built between the Australian team and the team working in northern Afghanistan.
“We are working with people we can trust, this is important to build MDF,” he said.
Najaf says that since donating the ambulance to the region 18 months ago, he has seen many different charities start up, but believes MDF is one of the only Australian non-profit charities who have remained in the area.
In 2008, Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman collaboratively released The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif, a memoir of Najaf’s life journey from Afghanistan, across sea and land to seek refuge in Australia. The Rug-maker of Mazar-e-Sharif is an amazing story of courage, hope and determination.
In 2012, the authors published another novel called The Honey Thief providing readers with a collection of short stories exploring the rich culture of the Hazara people living in Afghanistan.
The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman
“I did not know that I could feel this much sorrow without a body to bury… We who are watched and guarded, we who are questioned, probed, doubted – we are all illegals”…
Beautifully captured and penned by award-winning biographer Robert Hillman, this is a compelling story of an exceptional yet ‘ordinary’ man whose generous spirit, natural leadership and desire for peace, transcends enormous danger and heartbreak.
Against a background of civil war and politics in Afghanistan, this extraordinary story follows the life of a twelve year old Hazara shepherd boy who forsakes his family wishes and becomes an apprentice rug maker. War is always in the background and the guns are never quiet. In 2001, Najaf is captured and tortured by the Taliban and he is forced to flee Afghanistan, putting his life into the hands of a traditional enemy, a Pashtun, to escape.
Surviving ten checkpoints, finally he is delivered safely into Pakistan. Aboard a small boat that is falling to pieces and which sinks alarmingly with the burden of its cargo, Najaf and 96 men, women and children take their chances to reach Australia.
Najaf Mazari’s compelling and inspiring story begins in Woomera Detention Centre in the remote Australian desert.
“After a few months back in the factory, I was weaving simple quality rugs without assistance…but then come the more difficult tasks – learning to repair rugs, to stretch rugs, to match colours, make colours, create a design that does justice to fine yarns. ..It was during my initiation into the deeper mysteries of my craft that I began to understand how a world can exist within a single room. For when my concentration was at its greatest, it felt that the world lived in the yarns, in the colours and in the skills of rugmaking.
Hillman says although he worked with Najaf for over nine months to write the book, Najaf “cried and cried when he finished reading the final story.”
Najaf Mazari was born in 1971 in a small village near Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. He fled Afghanistan in 2001 and ended up in Woomera Detention Centre. After his release, he settled in Melbourne where he now owns a rug shop, selling traditional Afghan rugs. His wife and daughter were finally given permission by the Australian government to join him in 2006 after a six year separation. In April 2007 he became an Australian citizen.
He says that he continually wonders why he has been so lucky; ‘chosen to prosper’. He says: ‘Why did my troubles catch the eye of God? It is a puzzle that can never be answered”.
“Australia.” He says, “is a land that I love in the way that a man loves the friend who saved his life”.
Literary conversation: The Rugmaker of Mazar-Sharif
In this installment of our Texts in the City series, host Ruby Murray discusses The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif with co-authors Robert Hillman and Najaf Mazari. They discuss the facts behind the story, the relationship between its truth and creative retelling, Mazari’s first reading of Hillman’s text and how conflict can be resolved with imagination and poetry.
The Honey Thief, a collection of spellbinding fables in the rich storytelling tradition of Afghanistan, exploring the Hazara experience and cultural identity.
‘Moving effortlessly from the oral to the written, from folktale to modern-day fable, and from the earthly to the transcendent, this beautiful, life-affirming book probes the heart and soul of a remarkable culture, while paying homage to the universal power of story.’ — Arnold Zable, Award winning writer, storyteller, educator, and human rights advocate.
The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif and The Honey Thief can be purchased from all good booksellers, or directly from:
Najaf, at Afghan Traditional Rugs, 461 High Street, Prahran
Wild Dingo Press 03 9523 0922
This picture is taken from the MDF ambulance dashboard as it travels through the mountainous region in the Balkh province, Northern Afghanistan. The wintery conditions often prevent residents from travel during winter time. The ambulance operating in this region is funded and coordinated by a Melbourne based charity founded by refugee and successful author Najaf Mazari. Equipped with snow chains and four wheel capacity, the ambulance transports an average of 10 to 12 patients a month from the SharShar village clinic to the regional hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif.
MDF website: masawatdevelopmentfund.org.au
After he escaped the Taliban and survived the treacherous journey across sea and land to seek asylum, Najaf Mazari vowed that he would share his good fortune of survival with his countrymen back in Northern Afghanistan.
His dream become a reality in 2008, when Najaf and a small group of Melbourne based friends established the non-profit charity organisation, Masawat Development Fund (MDF).
In 2012, the MDF committee raised enough money to purchase a heavy duty ambulance to service Najaf’s home town in Shar Shar Village, in the Charkent District in Northern Afghanistan. This medical transport service, provided by the generosity of the MDF committee and their loyal supporters, provides patients with an unprecedented medical transfer service to transport patients to hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif in full comfort. Prior to this service, patients used rudimentary forms of transport such as a donkey or horse and cart.
Najaf proudly admits the ambulance is the first and only in the Charkent region and is definitely saving lives.
“In most of these places they use donkeys or go by horseback, which takes up to 12-14 hours to reach the city and to reach the hospital,” Najaf said.
“It makes me so happy to know that the ambulance now takes between one and a half hours to four hours to bring the patients to the city [Mazar-e-Sharif], it is a free service and it is saving lives,” he proudly admits.
“My village in Northern Afghanistan is in the high mountains and they don’t have any healthcare and health services like hospitals or ambulances,” he said.
He said the majority of patients are transported to hospital for obstetrics and gynaecology, however the ambulance transports patients for a variety of medical reasons. For many, the long and dangerous journey to hospital on donkey-back is life threatening, and extremely uncomfortable. Private clinics are the only options, but are too expensive, and unaffordable for most people to seek medical attention, situations which often puts lives at risk.
A recent report released by the United Nations, Afghanistan Common Humanitarian Action Plan 2013, reported that access to primary healthcare, vaccinations, adequate food and clean drinking water was generally poor and not available for all Afghan citizens. While humanitarian statistics are improving across all sectors, Afghanistan has revealed to have some of the poorest global humanitarian indicators. The maternal-morality rate is among the world’s highest while only forty per cent of births were assisted by trained medical personnel. Afghanistan is one of the 25 countries in the world where the risk of dying during pregnancy is the highest: as one Afghan woman dies every two hours due to pregnancy related causes.
In Australia it is hard to imagine the consequences of this dire poverty and damage caused by thirty years of war and unrest. Najaf reflects on the reality of this situation and believes that every contribution made, either small or large, can improve the situation for this poorest and most unstable country in the World.
Najaf is optimistic and positive about the improved health service that MDF is providing for the region.
“I feel bad for the injured people, especially pregnant women and sick children,” Najaf explained.
He said he was in constant contact with the driver and staff at the clinic in Shar Shar village.
“I have been called late at night for permission to take a very sick man to Kabul hospital.
“Of course I said you must take him to hospital, but unfortunately he died before the ambulance got to him. Not all stories end happy,” Najaf said with regret.
Najaf is conscious about his comfortable life in Australia, constantly thinking of how to assist people living in his hometown who struggle without basic health and educational services. His constant desire to contribute to reconstruction and development efforts has inspired many people, and it is because of this energy and dedication to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan that Masawat Development Fund continues to flourish.
“One way in which I try to solve the problem of my good fortune is to share it in every way I can with those in Mazar-e-Sharif who need some comfort in their lives. I am not the United Nations, but surely I can help in a small way,” Najaf said.
The Masawat Development Fund continues to organise fundraising activities to fund future projects and ongoing costs associated with the ambulance and clinic operating in the Balkh province, Northern Afghanistan. To learn more about future projects visit the MDF website, http://masawatdevelopmentfund.org.au/.
Pictured above: Najaf Mazari, founder and president of the Masawat Development Fund with Afghan style dancers at the annual fundraising dinner, An Evening in Afghanistan 2013.
Najaf is a businessman and author of two successful novels, The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif and The Honey Thief.
Pictured below: The MDF ambulance is on call 24 hours a day transporting patients from the remote Charkent region to Mazar-e-Sharif, which can take up to four hours drive. The majority of patients are transported for pregnancy related issues. The four wheel drive is equipped to operate in all weather conditions, including snow covered roads.
The Balkh province in Northern Afghanistan. The region where the MDF ambulance is in operation.